It never ceases to amaze me how much bad writing there is in the world.
Truly, when you think about it, you can most likely remember more poorly-written books you’ve read than well-written ones. Why is that? Bad prose tends to stick in our memory. Think of it as a kind of gruesome car accident–you know you shouldn’t watch it, but you can’t look away.
Bad writing is almost predictable in its awfulness. That is, there are several contributing factors to a poorly-written piece that can be seen almost across the board.
If you want to avoid bad writing, you need to avoid the factors that contribute to bad writing. One way you can do that is by cutting these scenes.
1. Mirror Scenes
Nothing in prose irritates me more than getting character description from a reflection. Most of the time, these scenes consist of a character peering into the nearest reflective surface–whether it be a mirror or a lake or even a spoon–and commenting on his or her appearance as though noticing it for the first time. How many times do you look in the mirror and look yourself over from head to toe, noting your “caramel-colored eyes” or “luscious red curls.” Probably never. Honestly,there are better ways to reveal a character’s appearance.
2. Dream Sequences
Oh, goodness. Dream sequences, for me, are right up there with mirror scenes. The only difference is that, unlike a mirror scene, a well-written dream sequence can serve the plot. For example, in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, dreams form an integral part of the story. Unfortunately not all dream sequences are created equal. I’ve seen authors slip in dreams seemingly only for the sake of making word count. Don’t do that. If you’re going to use a dream, make sure it’s relevant to what’s going in in your story.
3. Commonplace Exchanges
I once read a novel in which a whole chapter was spent chronicling a trip to the grocery store. I wish I were kidding. If your scene or chapter doesn’t reveal character or move the plot along, you’re better off without it. No one wants to watch your protagonist picking out produce. We do that enough in our own lives as it is.
These are just three types of scenes that can be removed for the sake of strengthening your piece. I know there are others, but these cover most of the big-picture problems.
What types of scenes do you cut from your work? Do you agree with these three?
Ah, the red pen—a staple of exemplary writing.
Fiction writers, nonfiction writers, and poets alike utilize red pens to edit their work. If you don’t use a red pen, you’re certainly familiar with the backspace key and the Track Changes option on your word processor. Editing is a vital part of the writing process. You can’t have good writing without rewriting. As Patricia Fuller said, “Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” It’s foolish.
Of course, there is such a thing as too much editing.
When basic revising crosses the line into overanalyzing every single word and piece of punctuation, you know you’re in trouble. Although revising is important, it needs to have a finite end. No piece of writing can be more than nearly perfect. If you go through the same piece over and over again without stopping, you’re sacrificing time and effort better given to new projects.
I am now and have always been a perfectionist. I’m rarely satisfied with my completed pieces. When editing my work, I have a hard time stopping myself. There’s always something that needs to be fixed—in my eyes, at least.
As writers, we can also be our own worst critics. Our standards are different than everyone else’s. Sometimes the prose is not as bad as our minds make it out to be.
Additionally, editing can turn into a vehicle for procrastination. When we’re afraid to start new projects, we waste all our time on polishing pieces that are already excellent. Sometimes we just need to stop. Sometimes we need to give up.
We need to walk away.
If you’re waiting for someone to tell you that your work is perfect, the wait is over. You want someone to tell you that it’s okay to stop? To move on? To start something new?
That’s where I come in.
That thing you’ve been editing to death is fine exactly as it is, I promise.
It’s not a monster. It won’t frighten anybody. Slide it into your desk drawer, close the drawer, and go outside. Take a walk around the neighborhood. Play with your children.
Write something else.
The world doesn’t end just because you stop editing.
What do you think? When do you stop editing?